A shaky truce has stopped the fighting in only some parts of Yemen, as UN-backed efforts get under way to end a civil war that has killed 6,200 Yemenis and enabled al-Qaeda to set up its own mini-state in the south of the country.
Often referred to as the “forgotten war”, the conflict has torn the Yemen apart after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine Sunni states intervened in March last year to stop the victory of Houthi rebels in alliance with armed forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition has inflicted heavy loss of life on civilians, including 97 people, 25 of them children, who died when bombs were dropped on a crowded market place in north western Yemen on 15 March.
“People are no longer able to live because of the war which destroyed everything,” Shawqi Abdullah, a taxi driver in the capital Sanaa told a news agency as the truce took hold. “We had a calm night with no planes flying and fear of bombs. And we hope that the war ends.”
Despite intervention by Saudi Arabia and its coalition against the Houthis, whom they see as Iranian-backed Shia rebels, the Houthis still hold Sanaa. But, though residents there said they had spent a quiet night, there was continual fighting in the city of Taiz in the south west that is under siege by the Houthis. Peace talks are due to begin under UN auspices in Kuwait on 18 April, but a year of fighting has left Yemen fragmented as different armed groups of uncertain loyalty battle for control of every province.
Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states are backing the government-in-exile of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which claims legitimacy because it is internationally recognised, though it was never elected. With Saudi support, its forces recaptured Aden last July, but the port city and southern Yemen have collapsed into chaos. The Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh are being pushed further north, but they have not been defeated and were able to hold a defiant rally in Sanaa to celebrate their resistance a year after the start of the coalition bombing campaign.
The outside world has paid limited attention to the war in Yemen because the country is isolated and there has been no mass exodus of refugees and migrants heading for the European Union. So bad are conditions that some Yemenis have fled to Somalia, one of the most impoverished, divided and war-ravaged countries in the world. Even before the war, Yemenis were very poor and many do not have the money to take flight, however bad local conditions.
As in Iraq, Syria and Libya, the greatest beneficiaries of the break-up of Yemen have been salafi-jiahadi movements, in this case al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group, which the US holds responsible for a series of bomb attacks on American targets, has expanded rapidly over the last year, seizing Mukalla, a city of 500,000 and the third biggest port in Yemen. AQAP makes an estimated $2 million (£1.4m) a day from goods and fuel being passing through the port, in addition to $100 million from raiding the local central bank according to a special report by Reuters titled: “How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer.”
What Raqqa and Mosul are to Isis, Mukalla is to AQAP which has long been targeted by US drone strikes. It is now stronger than at any time for twenty years, with an estimated 1,000 fighters in Mukalla and control of a further 373 miles of coastline according to the report. Paradoxically Saudi Arabia claims that one of the purposes of its campaign is to deny “terrorists a safe haven in Yemen.” Isis have also made advances, but not to the same degree as al-Qaeda.
AQAP got its opportunity to expand when Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm” in March 2015, Yemeni army troops were withdrawn from Mukalla and AQAP took over. With revenues from taxes and smuggled fuel, it has been able to grow in popularity and is regarded as less cruel than Isis. Its leaders are able to arm their fighters with weapons and ammunition abandoned by the army that is fighting Saudi-backed forces alongside the Houthis.
The ceasefire that was meant to begin at midnight on Sunday may be inadequate, but it is the most serious attempt to end the fighting in a year. It may be a sign that Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from an inconclusive war that it is not winning and which, instead, has produced a stalemate with the Houthis still holding Sanaa and with AQAP creating its own state on the southern coast.
Patrick Cockburn’s ‘Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East’ (OR Books) is published this month